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Published: Saturday, 5/8/2004

The long haul

IT IS difficult not to think of Vietnam when witnessing the recent developments involving American troops in Iraq. Instead of reducing American forces in the coming months as planned, the United States will not only maintain current troop levels of between 135,000 and 138,000 much longer than forecast last spring, but may need even more to combat growing violence.

Let's review. In March, 2003, American soldiers marched on Baghdad to rid it of a brutal regime and liberate an oppressed people. The last remaining superpower knows how to fight wars and wrapped up Operation Iraqi Freedom in short order. Who can forget a beaming president's made-for-campaign appearance on an aircraft carrier a year ago to bask in the victory of a "Mission Accomplished"?

But policing Iraq has been fraught with problems. Today the U.S. is reeling from April's setback, its bloodiest month since it invaded Iraq. And military casualties are rising, with more than 750 dead since the American invasion. Iraqis are increasingly turning on their occupiers as suspicions grow that their delayed independence may never come while the Americans are in control.

So U.S. troops, far more than any other country in the so-called "coalition of the willing," have become prime targets for retaliation. Now the number of killed or wounded American soldiers changes daily and flag-draped coffins arrive regularly - though largely hidden from public view - at Dover Air Force Base. And it'll get worse.

"You're going to have a period of increased (insurgent) attacks," said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. "We just have to expect that." But no one, it appears, expected the clash of cultures to be so severe. Incredibly, the Bush Administration never seemed to truly grasp or anticipate the multidimensional difficulties of waging peace in Iraq and propping up a western-style democracy where none had existed before.

The hollowness of U.S. postwar policy in Iraq is apparent by the administration's fanciful goal of achieving an early exit from Iraq after the magic date of June 30 signals the transfer of sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government.

Fat chance that will happen, as ethnic factions continue to butt heads in a bitter scramble for power, all the while resenting the enduring U.S. military presence and the U.N. caretaker compromises tendered in advance of Iraqi elections.

Then came the photographed degradation and abuse of captured Iraqi prisoners at the hands of Americans.

U.S. soldiers are superbly trained to win wars, and they did their job in Iraq. Nation-building is not their area of expertise, but they've been assigned to the front lines of the task nonetheless and are paying for it with their lives. One returning American soldier trained as an MP said he wouldn't be surprised if U.S. casualties in Iraq hit 1,000 by July.

On it goes, with suicide bombings, convoy ambushes, and mortar attacks on helicopters and barracks. On it goes, with factional fighting for control. On it goes, with no end in sight, the American death toll climbing, and American policy makers determined to gut it out.

"This is a difficult period," Mr. Rumsfeld noted, stating the obvious, "but our folks are there and are going to stay there." Until fixing Iraq becomes more painful and fruitless than Vietnam?



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